Historical Note

“Freedom is not enough”

On June 4, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood on the quadrangle of Howard University in Washington, D.C., and delivered what is considered the first modern-day declaration for affirmative action. Two months later, on Aug. 6, 1965, LBJ approved the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Portions of LBJ’s historic speech are excerpted below.

… Nothing in any country touches us more profoundly, and nothing is more freighted with meaning for our own destiny than the revolution of the Negro American.

In far too many ways, American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope.

The American Negro, acting with impressive restraint, has peacefully protested and marched, entered the courtrooms and the seats of government, demanding a justice that has long been denied. The voice of the Negro was the call to action.

But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: “Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.”

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Photo: Associated Press

Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom, but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity, but human ability; not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result.

For the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance as every other American to learn and grow, to work and share in society, to develop their abilities — physical, mental and spiritual, and to pursue their individual happiness.

To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough. Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in — by the school you go to, and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally, the man.

Of course, Negro Americans as well as white Americans have shared in our rising national abundance. But the harsh fact of the matter is that in the battle for true equality, too many — far too many — are losing ground every day.

We are not completely sure why this is. We know the causes are complex and subtle.

First, Negroes are trapped — as many whites are trapped — in inherited, gateless poverty. They lack training and skills. They are shut in, in slums, without decent medical care. Private and public poverty combine to cripple their capacities.

But there is a second cause — much more difficult to explain, more deeply grounded, more desperate in its force. It is the devastating heritage of long years of slavery, and a century of oppression, hatred and injustice.

Negro poverty is not white poverty. Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences — deep, corrosive, obstinate differences — radiating painful roots into the community, and into the family, and the nature of the individual.

These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice. They are anguishing to observe. For the Negro, they are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white, they are a constant reminder of guilt. But they must be faced, and they must be dealt with, and they must be overcome if we are ever to reach the time when the only difference between Negroes and whites is the color of their skin.

Nor can we find a complete answer in the experience of other American minorities. They made a valiant and a largely successful effort to emerge from poverty and prejudice.

The Negro, like these others, will have to rely mostly upon his own efforts. But he just cannot do it alone. For they did not have the heritage of centuries to overcome, and they did not have a cultural tradition which had been twisted and battered by endless years of hatred and hopelessness, nor were they excluded, these others, because of race or color — a feeling whose dark intensity is matched by no other prejudice in our society.

Much of the Negro community is buried under a blanket of history and circumstance. It is not a lasting solution to lift just one corner of that blanket. We must stand on all sides and we must raise the entire cover if we are to liberate our fellow citizens.